Is it just me? Writing the outsider character – Lisa Walker

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By Lisa Walker

For me, writing a novel starts with a character and a situation. The story forms around that, accruing in layers through a mysterious process I don’t like to delve into too deeply – I’m afraid if I examine it, it will vanish. In the second and third drafts I can think about structure, pacing, and turning points but my first draft is about discovering the story. Writing this first draft fills me with anxiety. Who is this person and what is their story? Do I really have a novel here? Once I know my protagonist and what makes them tick I feel like I can relax a bit.♥

With my second novel Sex, Lies and Bonsai, I started with the idea that I wanted to write a story about a young woman who felt like an outsider in her own town. My writing desk has a view of the sea. From here, at any time of day, I can see surfers skimming across the waves.  What would it be like, I thought, to live in this town and be scared of the water? To have fair skin that burns in the sun? To have a vivid and original imagination but be so shy that no-one ever gets to know that part of you?

The outsider character is a common one in fiction. The protagonist’s sense of isolation from their community allows the reader to enter it through their eyes. They see things that are unremarkable to others. And we can relate to them – don’t we all feel like outsiders sometimes? No-one else sees the world exactly as we do.

Darling Head, where the novel is set, is a serious surf town – one where the ‘The wetsuit is the look on the street and the clothes shops stock only surf wear’. It is, in fact, very like my own home town, Lennox Head.

Into this town I threw Edie – a shy redhead whose father is the former Australian Surf Champion, a girl who hasn’t been in the water since she was twelve. Edie’s father is the total insider, the town celebrity, but Edie has spent her whole life feeling like she doesn’t belong. While she ‘escaped’ to the city for a few years, a failed relationship finds her washed up back in her childhood home.

Darling Head has its own lingo and while Edie can ‘surf chat for Australia’ she fears exposure as an imposter – a non-surfer. This sense of being a fraud carries over into other parts of her life. When she is dumped by her ‘perfect’ boyfriend, she is not surprised – she always knew that he would find her out one day.

The outsider character can provide many opportunities for humour – they are a fish out of water, the odd one out. In search of a way to pay her bills, Edie seizes on the idea of becoming an erotic writer. And of course if there is anything worse than being the water shy daughter of a surf champion, it is being outed as the town’s sole erotic writer. Darling Head is the sort of town where no one is anonymous. At one stage, Edie compares it to the twelve days of Christmas… ‘Four surfboard shapers, Three drug dealers, Two millionaire developers and a milkman in a white van.’

The people around Edie act in ways that buttress her outsider status. Her super-confident best friend changes her hairstyle as often as she changes her lovers and tries to coach Edie in the essential social skills of flirting and small talk. Meanwhile, her father seems unable to understand that surfing is not the remedy for all that ails her.

The inspiration for Edie’s story came from a few different places. While I am a surfer myself, my kids are fairly apathetic about it. In a town with a strong surfing culture, whether you do or don’t surf becomes an important part of who you are. Edie’s anxiety about being known as an erotic writer in her home town stems in part from my own feelings about having my first novel Liar Bird accepted for publication. I immediately imagined everyone I knew poring through its pages trying to recognise the characters. I extrapolated from these feelings.

The central question for an outsider character is, ‘is it just me? And isn’t that one of the main reasons why we read – to reassure ourselves that we are not the only one who feels this way? At its heart, Sex, Lies and Bonsai is a story about accepting who you are. Edie has spent most of her life trying to hide what she sees as her peculiarities. I wanted to see what would happen if she let all that rich inner life come out.

Lisa Walker is the author of the young adult novel Paris Syndrome and romantic comedy Melt, both published in 2018, as well as Sex, Lies and Bonsai, which is released in the US and UK in 2018. Other novels are Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing and Liar Bird. Her radio play Baddest Backpackers was produced for ABC Radio National in 2008 and she has won several short story awards. She was born in Holland and grew up in Fiji before moving to Australia. She has worked as a wilderness guide and environmental communicator and now lives on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia.

Twitter: @LisaWalkerTweet

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